As Orange County’s Coronavirus cases continue to spike, worries over a lack of hospital staffing and resources to deal with rising hospitalizations are surfacing.
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“You need more than just potential [intensive care unit] beds, you need staffing for those beds. You need ventilators,” said Dr. Saahir Khan in a Tuesday phone interview.
Khan, who’s an infectious disease professor at UC Irvine, cares for coronavirus patients in the UCI Medical Center in Orange.
He expressed doubt in the OC Health Care Agency’s surge capacity count, which are extra beds that can open up when hospitalizations begin overwhelming hospitals.
“You can come up with a plan that says okay we can open up x-number of ICU beds in a surge scenario, but in the real world, you need to be able to staff those beds and provide the resources that can care for patients,” Khan said.
“My sense is that overall our numbers on ICU capacity remaining is an over estimate. We are estimating in an ideal scenario we can open up this many beds, but you need more than potential beds,” he said.
HCA director and interim health officer Dr. Clayton Chau has repeatedly said hospitals stand ready to face the incoming surge of cases.
Although, Chau expressed some concern about the spiking case counts and hospitalizations at last Thursday’s news conference when OC had 38 percent of ICU beds available.
“If the numbers go up it means that we really need to do more to prevent people from getting infected,” Chau said. “The bed issue, in terms of surge, our capacity of surge is still very good.”
The rising cases caused Chau to plead with residents to wear masks, stay six-feet away from people in public and stay home as much as possible.
“This seriously means that as a community we really have to pay serious attention to the alternative prevention behavior that we need to do,” Chau said. “When you are indoors and you linger around longer for people who do not live in the same household as you, you are at high risk of getting the infection.”
Carmela Coyle, president & CEO of the California Hospital Association, said the organization and the hospitals are teaming up to get more supplies and staff to handle the incoming wave of virus patients.
“Hospitals are being prepared … we are building up our inventory … attempting to build up our capabilities and inventory of testing supplies,” said Coyle, at a Wednesday news conference hosted by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
She also said they can retrain nurses from nursing homes and other care facilities “in case we need them in an intensive care unit.”
Newsom said the situation is getting worse across the state.
“The new number we got in … shows a 44 percent increase in hospitalizations over the last two week period,” Newsom said.
“We’re seeing hospitalization rates grow,” Newsom said. “Because people are not wearing their masks … practicing the physical distancing they should.”
Meanwhile, the virus has now killed 376 people in Orange County, including seven new deaths reported Wednesday, according to the OC Health Care Agency.
Hospitalizations in Orange County have been steadily rising over the past week, with 679 people in hospitals, including 234 in intensive care units.
There are 20,225 confirmed cases out of 285,482 tests throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
“The trends are very concerning and we can continue to expect the impact on the healthcare system to get worse in the coming days and weeks,” reads Wednesday’s daily situation report put together by the OC Emergency Medical Services.
The report emphasized that ICU’s will be hit hard in the coming weeks because the virus worsens over time.
“Increased disease transmission always comes first; Increased hospitalizations comes later as illness develops and worsens; Increased ICU need comes even later as illness continues to worsen over time,” states the report.
The situation on the frontlines is starting to show some cracks.
Khan said cases are shooting up at the UCI hospital.
“Our cases are also shooting through the roof. The majority of our [intensive care unit] is COVID patients and I think the biggest challenge is not so much the number of ICU beds … we’re more limited by the staffing and the availability of resources, like ventilators,” he said.
“I’m afraid of being overwhelmed,” Khan said. “We estimate that we would be reaching a peak in the next three weeks.”
Employees at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital said nurses are overloaded with patients because of understaffing and hospital management has failed to keep virus patients separate from non-virus patients.
Registered nurse Melissa Moore quit her job at the hospital after 12 years because she said management wasn’t supplying enough masks and failing to keep the virus from spreading.
“If we can’t control it enough to not spread it to our coworkers then we’re really not going to be able to keep it spreading from our coworkers through the hospital and back to the patients. We’re going to become like an epicenter for COVID-19,” Moore said, noting she was exposed to the virus multiple times from her former colleagues.
She ended up testing negative for the virus.
“If something doesn’t get done and people don’t speak out about it, it’s just going to continue and get worse and they’re going to have more patients suffer,” Moore said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Workers and their union representatives held a news conference last Thursday to publicly air their concerns.
Tenet Health, who owns the hospital, said management is following CDC protocol and guidelines. The company also said patients and employees are automatically screened for testing.
“We are not at capacity and have not reached a point where diverting ambulances is necessary or appropriate. As long as we have sufficient physicians, staff, space and equipment, we will not go on diversion. We are committed to caring for our community,” reads a Tuesday statement.
Dr. Thomas Cesario, an infectious disease expert and former dean of UCI’s medical school, said the situation reflects how the overall situation is worsening in Orange County.
“This is a sign of how this crisis is getting out of hand,” Cesario said. “People are doing what they have to do to keep taking care of these patients. Hospitals are filling up at a rapid rate, every indicator we have is that the cases in orange county are accelerating.”
Cesario said the virus is taking many health professionals by surprise.
“The problem we have is nobody really knows what this is. I think all of us thought there would be a peak and it would slow down,” he said. “I don’t see any sign of relief in the immediate future and we’re just dealing with a minority of the population infected, the majority don’t have it.”
“I think there’s a long road ahead of us right now.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data: